We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that mean?
It means, first, that a Christian needs others for the sake of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that from eternity we have been chosen in Jesus Christ, accepted in time, and united for eternity.
(p. 31). Our fellowship — our community — is defined not by denominational tags, our history of division, or some “identity” other than our identity in Jesus Christ. All else is idolatry. The only identity that matters is that we are together in Jesus Christ. Period.
When we claim some other identity, we give our allegiance to something other than our Savior. That is, by definition, idolatry and false religion. Those of us who struggle in that area should be scared. It’s a scary place to be — because to build our Christian communiy on any other identity is to declare Jesus insufficient. It’s what Paul, in Galatians, calls “a different gospel.”
(Gal 1:6-9 ESV) 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
We define the gospel we obey by whom we fellowship — that is, whom we treat as fellow Christians. Our community is either built on our identity as believers in Jesus or on something else. And only faith in Jesus saves.
(Gal 5:6 ESV) 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
First, Christians are persons who no longer seek their salvation, their deliverance, their justification in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone. They know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them guilty, even when they feel nothing of their own guilt, and that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them free and righteous, even when they feel nothing of their own righteousness. Christians no longer live by their own resources, by accusing themselves and justifying themselves, but by God’s accusation and God’s justification. They live entirely by God’s Word pronounced on them, in faithful submission to God’s judgment, whether it declares them guilty or righteous.
(p. 31). You see, when we truly understand that we are saved by grace, through faith, then we truly understand that we just, plain don’t deserve our salvation. And if we don’t deserve it, the fact that the guy sitting next to me doesn’t deserve his salvation doesn’t upset me, because I don’t deserve to be here either. After all, we’re all saved by grace.
This allows us to be humble enough to recognize that those who dare disagree with us over this or that — and yet remain in genuine faith in Jesus — aren’t less deserving of salvation than us.
The discriminator, therefore, isn’t our purity or our holiness or our righteousness or our education or our knowledge of the Bible or our pattern of worship or our pattern of church organization — but our faith in Jesus. And that changes everything.
Of course, “faith” includes faithfulness to Jesus as well as belief in who he is. But faithfulness is a state of the heart, not a level of intellectual attainment. If we disagree about the age of the earth or the proper use of the church treasury or what is authorized in worship, we disagree in faith, in penitence. We are both desperately trying to be obedient. We both submit to God’s word as best we can. We both have faith. And therefore we are both accepted by God, who accepts our differing worship because he accepts our similar hearts.
We need Christian community because we struggle to sort it all out on our own —
God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth. They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation. They need them solely for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure.
(p. 32). I don’t go to church to be affirmed in what I already believe. I go to be brought closer to Jesus, to the true gospel, to a deeper, richer understanding. In going, I admit that I need to go, not to be with other perfect people, but to hear the Word again proclaimed that I might be measured by it, confess my failings, and be changed for the better. You see, I should go in humility or not at all.
If I go expecting to be the expert, the master of God’s word, then I have no chance to be bettered. I have no hope of improvement. And I make myself the standard rather than the word of God. It’s not a good place to be.
Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. That not only is true at the beginning, as if in the course of time something else were to be added to our community, but also remains so for all the future and into all eternity. I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us.
(p. 34). Imagine that. The more we learn about Jesus, the longer we walk with him together — as a church — the less anything else should matter. If we grow in faith, not arrogance, then as our faith grows, we cling ever more to Jesus and even less to our own righteousness. Our humility deepens as we learn more and more about ourselves and Jesus.
We grow more like Jesus, and do indeed become more righteous, but our confidence and assurance is less and less on our greater and greater righteousness and more and more on Jesus. We can never, ever outgrow grace. We never earn any of it, and as we submit more and more to that reality, we find it easier to accept others.
Sadly, though, our churches have a way of teaching our members to feel more and more entitled as time goes on. Our members build their confidence more and more on an identity other than Jesus. We become denominationalized. We no longer feel that faith in Jesus is enough.
All those years of loyalty to a human institution — a denomination — makes us feel an allegiance to ideas and theories and doctrines rather than the person Jesus. Indeed, our denominational identity becomes a source of pride because we’ve been taught we’re holier than the others, care more about truth than the others, love Jesus more than the others. And these are lies. These are idols.
You see, these kind of ideas are the exact opposite of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. We want to earn our salvation — and we want to look down on others. We wear our humility uncomfortably. We’d rather be better, we’d rather be smarter, we’d rather be able to look down our noses at those other churches with their big buildings and big budgets.
And it’s wicked. Does that mean we’re wrong? Or right? No, it means that salvation is based on faith in Jesus — and as Paul wrote —
(Rom 1:17 NIV) For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed–a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
We are good with our walk with Jesus beginning with faith, but we aren’t willing to admit that it’s faith all the way to the end — because that seems too gracious, too generous, too good to be true. Therefore, we add requirements and rules. After all, Christians are supposed to obey, right?
And, yes, Christians are supposed to obey. Absolutely. But Christianity is based on faith not works, and obedience is the response to salvation and not the path to salvation. It’s the necessary result of salvation.
You see, those with faith have transformed, penitent hearts that wish to obey. And God judges our hearts, not the perfection of our doctrine. Thus, even though we understand imperfectly and disagree among ourselves, God judges our hearts and our passions, and overlooks our intellectual and moral failings. This is the joy of grace.
But there are boundaries. And one of them is that we must extend to others the same grace we accept for ourselves. And so when we turn the real requirement of repentance into insistence on conformity to a body of inferences, we make faith into works, and we destroy God’s grace, destroy the foundation of Christian community, create division upon division, learn to boast in ourselves — and teach a different gospel.
No longer do we allow God to judge hearts. We insist that he judge performance — but only those elements of performance in which we believe we excel! Not personal evangelism (covered by grace), not concern for the poor (covered by grace), not love for our neighbors (covered by grace), but the order of worship and the pattern of church organization (no grace needed here).
And thus we invent a human religion based on works for those carefully selected works where we feel perfected — as though the religion of Jesus Christ were not good enough because it doesn’t damn those we wish to see damned.